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Penn State Football: For Zach Zwinak, 1,000 Yards Beats Watching a Loss on TV Any Day

by on November 27, 2012 12:45 AM

Last year on the Saturday afternoon following Thanksgiving, Zach Zwinak was at his home in Mount Airy, Md., watching TV with his parents.

They were tuned to one of those grisly reality shows, the kind so unbelievable and hideous that you’re too spellbound to change the channel. The name of the program, shot on location in Madison, Wis.?

Wisconsin 45, Penn State 7.

Zwinak, who appeared in just two games for Penn State in 2011, did not make the trip last year to Camp Randall Stadium. Perhaps mercifully so.

“That game last year was a little rough to watch,” said Zwinak on Saturday. “It was not a good game for us. That came up this week and we definitely were not going to let that happen again.”

He was right. It didn’t happen again.

A year later, Zwinak was a key part of Penn State football’s new reality: On Saturday in Beaver Stadium he ran for 179 yards on a monstrous 36 carries, earning exactly 1,000 yards rushing for the season, and helping the Nittany Lions to a 24-21 overtime win against the Badgers.

Couch potato one year, filet mignon the next. What a difference a Wisconsin makes.

Entering the Wisconsin game in 2011, Penn State was a mixed bag of emotions. The Lions, under interim coach Tom Bradley, had just defeated Ohio State on the road. But they were without their longtime head coach, Joe Paterno, and bad news was surfacing daily. With a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game at stake on a rainy afternoon, Penn State scored first, but Wisconsin responded with six consecutive touchdowns. The Nittany Lions were simply despondent.

However, like Zwinak many of the players on the 2012 Penn State squad didn’t make the trip to Wisconsin in 2011. In fact, only 26 Nittany Lion players who played against the Badgers last season also faced them again on Saturday. That’s a big reboot.

Using Bucky the Badger as a benchmark, it’s another example of how new the new era of Penn State football really is.

“What a difference a year makes,” said linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, one of only two Penn State assistant coaches (with Larry Johnson) to be on the staff for both games against Wisconsin. Vandy and Johnson served as co-defensive coordinators for the 2011 contest, in which the Badgers outgained Penn State 450 yards to 233.

“Last year we kind limped into the game, there was so much going on,” Vanderlinden added. “This year, the team charged into the game. Coach (Bill) O’Brien did a great job getting us ready, as did our seniors. Coach (Ted) Roof put together a really good plan on defense. They caught us off-guard the first two series, but after that we played really well.”

And while 16 of Penn State’s starters on Saturday also played against the Badgers in 2011, only six of them started both years: quarterback Matt McGloin, wide receiver Allen Robinson (as part of a four-receiver set) and center Matt Stankiewitch on offense, and tackle Jordan Hill and linebackers Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson on defense.

Carson, for one, couldn’t get the bad taste of moldy cheese out of his mouth: “Last week I watched film of our game against Wisconsin last season. It brought back a lot of bad memories. I definitely did not want to leave the field feeling like I did last year against Wisconsin.”

That defeat, coupled with a 30-14 loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl, gave Penn State a 21-75, two-defeat finish to the 2011 season.

That’s the kind of rebuilding job O’Brien faced. He had to restock, reassure, reconfigure, remake, remodel and recast.

He also had to catch Wisconsin’s thumping of Penn State in 2011 on reruns. Last Nov. 26, O’Brien was in Philadelphia, fine-tuning his call list of plays as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. The next day at Lincoln Financial Field, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 24 of 36 passes for 360 yards and three TDs as New England beat the Eagles, 38-20 – the third win of an eight-game victory streak that the Pats rode into the Super Bowl.

O’Brien reminded the Nittany Lions of the loss, but it was the players who were part of that Wisconsin whipping who wouldn’t let their teammates forget it.

“One of the first things Coach O’Brien said when he got here,” senior cornerback Stephon Morris said after the game, “was that we were going to be an all-weather team. I remembered that when I heard it was going to be cold and maybe snow (for the game).

“I couldn’t wait to play Wisconsin in the snow after we lost there in the rain. I told that to all my teammates in the secondary. I remember what Coach O’Brien said about the weather, I remembered how it felt losing to Wisconsin.

“So beating Wisconsin to end my career, and giving the younger kids momentum, there’s nothing better.”

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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